Wednesday, March 29, 2023


My favorite morning choice to break fast is not American after all:
Americans have laid claim to “English muffins”, and you’ll find countless stories online that they were invented by immigrant Samuel Bath Thomas in 1880 and subsequently sold in his New York bakery. These are balderdash.

Yes, it’s true that muffins of the bread type (as opposed to true American muffins, a sort of bloated cup cake) fell out of favour over here in the 20th century, while thriving in Stateside supermarket aisles.

But versions of the nursery rhyme “Have you seen the muffin man” date back to the 18th century, and food writer Hannah Glasse has a precise recipe in her 1747 bestseller The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, right down to instruction to split the muffin with your hands not a knife or it “will be heavy as lead”.

Still not convinced? Oscar Wilde has quintessential Englishmen Jack and Algernon squabble over the muffins in The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895. “Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden,” says Jack. Without being told they are American, he might have added.
Xanthe Clay, "Carbonara, English muffins, Caesar salad and other dishes that aren’t from where you think they are," The Telegraph, March 29, 2023.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

"The political benefits of religion..."

Burke on the proper place of politics:
During his first few years in England, Edmund Burke compiled essay sketches and fragments in a notebook published only in the mid-twentieth century. One of the entries in that notebook, possibly co-written with his distant cousin William Burke, is entitled “Religion of No Efficacy Considered as a State Engine.” ....

The premise is simple: Religion has salutary benefits for social and political life. But once it is seen primarily in a political context—when it becomes merely a “state engine”—it fails to provide those benefits.
If you attempt to make the end of Religion to be its Utility to human Society, to make it only a sort of supplement to the Law, and insist principally upon this topic, as is very common to do, you then change its principle of Operation, which consists on Views beyond this Life, to a consideration of another kind, and of an inferior kind.
.... In his later life...Burke would identify the social benefit of religion as its ability to overawe all other social calculations and considerations. It reminds us that all we say and do has cosmic significance. Placing all human endeavors next to the sublimity of God, as he noted in his Philosophical Enquiry, has the effect of diminishing our opinion of ourselves and our capabilities: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.” ....

The political benefits of religion, then, rely on the humility that true religion ought to produce. And, as the young Burke suggested, it could only come as a side effect of a religion that was not focused primarily on political and social affairs. ....

As Burke would eloquently argue throughout his life, unity around a genuine religious tradition can have great social benefits insofar as it places politics in a context that reveals its own insufficiency and limits. But his observations are a reminder that the question of public religion is much more complicated than a matter of whether, abstractly, religion is good for social life. Also at stake are the substantive teachings of the religion itself, the public perception of it, and its effects on the souls of those wielding it.

Minds shaped by the pulpit may, depending on what is taught there, lead to better citizens and better statesmen. But pulpits focused mostly on political matters are necessarily degraded from their true purpose and therefore self-defeating. .... (more)
John G. Grove, "A 'Religion of No Efficacy'," Law & Liberty, March 24, 2023.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

More bowdlerizing

And it continues:
Agatha Christie novels have been rewritten for modern sensitivities, The Telegraph can reveal. ....

The character of a British tourist venting her frustration at a group of children has been purged from a recent reissue, while a number of references to people smiling and comments on their teeth and physiques, have also been erased. ....

The new editions of Christie’s works are set to be released or have been released since 2020 by HarperCollins, which is said by insiders to use the services of sensitivity readers. It has created new editions of the entire run of Miss Marple mysteries and selected Poirot novels.

Digital versions of new editions seen by The Telegraph include scores of changes to texts written from 1920 to 1976, stripping them of numerous passages containing descriptions, insults or references to ethnicity, particularly for characters Christie’s protagonists encounter outside the UK.

The author’s own narration, often through the inner monologue of Miss Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, has been altered in many instances. Sections of dialogue uttered by often unsympathetic characters within the mysteries have also been cut. ....
One can't have even "unsympathetic characters" portrayed as bigots?

Craig Simpson, "Agatha Christie classics latest to be rewritten for modern sensitivities," The Telegraph, March 25, 2023.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Thinking for yourself

At The Free Press, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," an excerpt from While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector's Search for Freedom in America by Yeonmi Park. It is a fairly long excerpt, recounting some of what life was like in North Korea, but mostly her rather disappointing experiences after arriving in the United States.
.... It took a long time for me to start thinking for myself, rather than within the boundaries set for me. For the first fourteen years of my life, which is when we learn how to think, there was no thinking for me to do. What kind of haircut should I get? That was a decision made only by the regime. What kind of music should I listen to? The regime decided for us. What kinds of books and movies? The regime, again. There was no opportunity to develop critical human faculties like judgment, imagination, or taste, which of course is the objective of every dictatorial regime.

North Korea is so successful in this respect that once I was finally free in South Korea, I was crippled by the expectation and even the thought that I had to make decisions and think for myself. Which jeans should I wear? I wished someone else would pick for me. Where should I eat dinner? Can’t someone else decide? In the first several months I lived in Seoul, I felt overwhelmed even by small, meaningless decisions like these—so much so that at one point, I remember thinking that if I could be guaranteed a supply of frozen potatoes and an exemption from execution for having defected, I’d like to go back to North Korea.

It was not the education I received at Columbia, or following the American press, that helped me finally break out of this habit. It was reading old books. Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy was one; George Orwell’s collected writings were another. I started to believe, as I still do now, that the only way to think for yourself is to ignore the mainstream media, and largely forget the daily news cycle, and connect instead with the great minds of the past, who know all of our problems better than we do ourselves.

There is a reason why the great books of Western civilization are all banned in dictatorships. Before my father’s arrest, when I was seven or eight years old, I remember that one night in our home, he was sitting with a small glass bottle with cooking oil and a cotton thread inside, which he ignited with a lighter to turn it into a reading lamp. My father was holding a bundle of bound pages with no front or back cover. When I asked him what it was, he said it was part of a book about North Korean soldiers that were captured by the South during the Korean War. I remember him telling me then that the benefit of reading books, if you could find them, was that you could learn common sense, which you don’t get taught in classrooms, because they are filled with propaganda. .... (more)
Yeonmi Park, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," The Free Press, March 22, 2023.

The Abolition of Man

A tweet I saw today pointed out that C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man was published eighty years ago, in 1943. The book is very short—my copy has only 62 pages. It is definitely worth the time. A quotation from the book demonstrates its continuing relevance, perhaps more relevant today than when written:
My copy
.... The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.

…the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.”

In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao (Logos, Absolute, etc.) – a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgments of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.
I haven't tried but apparently the book can be downloaded in several formats.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

"I looked for life, and saw it was a shade..."

Chidiock Tichborne was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1586. He had been implicated in a Catholic plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I. He was 22 or 23. He wrote “Tichborne’s Lament” on the evening before his death. For more about him, the poem, and the circumstances of its writing go here. It was new to me.
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain.
The day is fled, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green:
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen.
My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death, and found it in my womb,
I looked for life, and saw it was a shade:
I trod the earth, and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
Douglas Murray, "Things Worth Remembering: The Last Words of a Doomed Poet," Free Press, March 19, 2023.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The lesser evil

Charles C.W. Cooke, annoyed with some of his critics, explains the difference between his role as an advocate and his responsibility as a voter in an imperfect world: the choices we all have to make between the perfect and the possible.
.... As a commentator, I seek perfection: Each day, I lay out the contours of my ideal world, argue precisely what I think about issues and candidates, honor my conscience, and try to persuade people to my side. As a voter, I live in the world as it actually exists. A useful analogy is with someone who is trying to make a business deal. When I am writing, I lay out unsparingly what I would get out of politics if I had everything my own way. When voting — when bartering with others, that is — I must inevitably settle for much less. ...[T]here is no tension whatsoever between these two roles unless I attempt to square my own opinions with the compromises I’m obliged to make as a voter. “I don’t especially like this candidate, but, in the booth, I preferred him to his opponent” is a legitimate take for even the most punctilious of ideologues. ....

Unless a given candidate has disqualified himself from consideration by doing something genuinely unforgivable — as Donald Trump did when he attempted to stage a coup in 2021 — the important question for me as a voter is not whether I am able to get everything I want from him, but whether I prefer him to his opponents. That I may strongly disagree with him on some important things — that I no doubt will disagree with him on some important things — is immaterial. In the electoral realm, the choice is either/or. ....
Charles C.W. Cooke, "You Can Criticize a Candidate and Still Vote for Him," National Review, March 17, 2023.

Friday, March 17, 2023

A reprobate hero

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series is surely one of the most entertaining ways to learn 19th century history. This essay explains why, but also why it may be difficult to find the books on library shelves these days.
.... Flashman was born to Lady Alicia Paget and Henry Buckley Flashman MP. After he was expelled from Rugby School at the age of 17, he joined the 11th Hussars under James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, and was sent to Afghanistan, where he became one of the few Britons to make it back from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–42). He subsequently saw action in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46), the Crimean War (1853–56), the Indian Rebellion (1857), the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the American Civil War (1861–65), the Second Franco-Mexican War (1861–67), and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).

He knew or met nearly all the eminent Victorians, including Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, Chinese Gordon, Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and Queen Victoria herself. His romantic conquests were no less illustrious. Lola Montez, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, and Daisy Greville, Edward VII’s mistress, all, at one time or another, shared Flashman’s bed (or he theirs). He was the only man to survive both the charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and he was (probably) the only man to sleep with both Lillie Langtry, the actress, and Yehonala, the last empress of China.

If you think that all sounds too extraordinary to be true, you’re right. ....

...[George MacDonald] Fraser insisted that he was merely the editor of Flashman’s memoirs, found in a tea chest during a country-house auction, and he provided footnotes and appendices to prove it. .... Fraser evoked the Victorian era so deftly that many reviewers of the first Flashman novel fell for the ruse, taking the character for a real man. One critic even declared that the pages were the greatest find since the discovery of James Boswell’s diaries.

It was a fitting mistake, for Flashman is a brilliant con artist, capable of pulling the wool over almost anyone’s eyes. ....

Flashman’s list of admirers is nearly as impressive as his list of lovers. Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens, David Mamet, and Charlie Chaplin all confessed to being Flashy fans. P.G. Wodehouse rarely praised other novelists, but when Fraser’s name came up he gushed: “If ever there was a time when I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet’ stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman [novel].” The character’s appeal derives, in part, from his candor. Though Flashman lies to everyone around him, he never lies to his readers. ....

Fraser was just as good at portraiture. Flashman was his crown jewel, but there are plenty of other gems in the series: the hero’s airheaded wife Elspeth; his cantankerous father-in-law, John Morrison; and John Charity Spring, the half-mad classicist who shanghaies Flashman aboard the Balliol College. Some of the most vivid people we meet are actual historical figures like Lord Cardigan, of Light Brigade fame, and John Brown, the abolitionist whose raid on Harpers Ferry helped precipitate the American Civil War. The most delightful of all is almost certainly the congressman from Illinois, whom Flashman first encounters at a Washington soirée in 1848: “I liked Abe Lincoln from the moment I first noticed him, leaning back in his chair with that hidden smile at the back of his eyes, gently cracking his knuckles.” .... (much more)
I've posted about the Flashman books before, here and here. If you wish to follow Flashman's career chronologically, there is a helpful chart at the foot of this post.

Graham Daseler, "A Jolly Good Scoundrel," Quillette, March 17, 2023.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Michael Caine

On Michael Caine's 90th birthday, John Nolte lists his own favorite Caine films. Below are some of Nolte's favorites that I have enjoyed enough to own the DVDs. I watched A Shock to the System just last night.
Zulu (1964)
The movie that made Caine a star is a superb reenactment of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, where 150 or so British soldiers somehow withstood an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors. Caine isn’t the star, but as the arrogant and insecure officer who becomes a man over the course of the battle, the movie is all his.
The Ipcress File (1965)
Caine plays the now-iconic Harry Palmer, a bespectacled anti-James Bond. More bureaucrat than intelligence officer, Harry is our sloppy protagonist who works in a dingy office, lives in a dingy flat, and worries about things like balancing his expense account. The character was popular enough to power four sequels, all starring Caine.
Get Carter (1971)
Caine brings all his movie star power and unspoken depth to the British gangster film of all British gangster films. Cold, calculating, and fearless, Jack Carter returns home to avenge his brother. Carter is the thing that just keeps coming, and not even the ladies are safe.
The Man Who Would Be King
Caine and co-star Sean Connery shine like the superstars they are in John Huston’s rollicking adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s infectious adventure about two former British soldiers tired of the lack of criminal opportunities in the British Empire. And so, they resolve to take a treacherous journey to a place where modernity dares not go, and in this place, they will serve as kings.

The chemistry between Caine and Connery sells this swashbuckler in a way unseen since the days of Errol Flynn. This is also a movie with plenty to say about ego, friendship, loyalty, and, yes, colonialism.
A Shock to the System (1990)
A gem of a black comedy with a killer cast and killer script (adapted by my friend Andrew Klavan) about Graham Marshall (Caine), a milquetoast advertising executive who suffers one indignity too many, which turns him into a cunning sociopath. The business with the lighter is beyond ingenious, and Caine—even as Graham’s ruthlessness deepens and becomes petty—never loses the audience. Our complicity, our vicarious satisfaction in watching this warlock mow down everyone who stands in his way, defines “guilty pleasure.”
Harry Brown (2009)
Caine is perfect as an aging pensioner who’s just lost a wife to old age and a best friend to local hooligans. Unfortunately, the police are useless against a ruthless gang that terrorizes Harry’s housing project. Fed up, this former Royal Marine takes matters into his own hands, and the results are tense and glorious.

Sure, Bronson made five movies like this. However, Harry Brown still stands out because Daniel Barber beautifully directs it, and although Caine plays his age, you buy into everything that happens.
This is only a selection among many more. I enjoy Caine in just about everything he has done.

John Nolte, "Happy 90th Birthday to the Mighty Michael Caine," March 16, 2023.

"Morse" is about failure and solitude

As the final episode of Endeavor has come to British television (and here soon, I hope), a consideration of the popularity of the series:
.... Three series grew out of Colin Dexter’s 13 novels: Inspector Morse (1987-2000); Lewis (2006-2015), in which Morse is a spectral presence, which suits him (he would be a good ghost); and Endeavour, the prequel (2012-23), which ended last week. ....

When John Thaw, who played Morse, drank in Oxford pubs during shooting, people would say: ‘Here, you’re Morse, aren’t you? Mind if I have a drink with you?’ So he hid in the Randolph Bar. It is now the Morse Bar, filled with photographs of Thaw.

People who have not heard of Morse – though it was seen by one billion people – might wonder who he is. ....

There was mention of a police cadet in the last Endeavour, who may sprout another spin-off, but Colin Dexter’s will is clear: there will be no new Morse until the copyright runs out.

Dexter was a teacher all his life. I think that’s why he liked killing teachers: the series overestimates the murder rate in Oxford by 2,600 per cent. He studied classics at Cambridge and lived in north Oxford. He began the first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, in north Wales in 1972.

Dexter described Morse as:
A sensitive and sometimes strangely vulnerable man; always a bit of a loner by nature; strongly attracted to beautiful women (often the crooks); dedicated to alcohol; and almost always on the verge of giving up nicotine. In politics, ever on the left, feeling himself congenitally incapable of voting for the Tory party; a “high church atheist” (as I called him), yet with a deep love for the Methodist Hymnal, the King James Bible, the church music of Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, etc., the sight of candles, and the smell of incense. Finally, like me, he would have given his hobbies in Who’s Who as reading the poets, crosswords, and Wagner.
Morse didn’t get into Who’s Who. One of the essential elements of his success is his failure. He never finished his degree, and nothing matters more in Oxford. ....
The Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour series can all be found on Amazon Prime Video.

Tanya Gold, "The cult of Morse," The Spectator, March 16, 2023.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Time well wasted

From an appreciation on Twitter:
The older I get, the better C.S. Lewis gets. His wisdom gets keener, and his insight clearer year by year. Like Aslan, he grows as I do.

I can understand why some folks who didn’t grow up in Narnia with the Pevensies may not warm to those stories. Jesus himself tells us that it is hard to relearn the wisdom of childhood once we’ve allowed the accumulation of years to dilute our ability for faith and wonder.

But Lewis didn’t just write stories for kids. The Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) was meant for adults. It is well told fiction, well taught theology, and well wrought social commentary. Those who appreciate what Orwell does with 1984 should watch a master at work in That Hideous Strength.

Lewis understood that good fiction can do all sorts of things, and that the best fiction can do the most important things—chief among them is telling the truth.....

...[I]f fiction is not your cup of tea, there is still no shortage of good—perhaps even the best—Lewis. His Preface to Paradise Lost is high art. More than a mere literary psychology of Milton, tracing his thought through Homer and Virgil and Beowulf, Lewis provides a psychology of Satan and litters the page with keen insights into human nature, evil, and the dynamics of the Fall. ....

Another gem that many overlook is his book on medieval cosmology disguised as literary criticism, The Discarded Image. Perhaps no other work has helped me understand the spirit of the Renaissance, with its humours, and hierarchies, and music of the spheres. More still, it helps us see what shaped the men who shaped the world. ....

His Studies in Words is a heady shot of philosophical philology served neat with no chaser. .... And many have never heard of his academic magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) and this is a shame. It really is an engaging work, despite its rather drab title. It is a fascinating study of a logocentric world turned into words again.

I have largely avoided his most “popular” titles (Miracles, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed, etc.), because their ubiquity is its own testimony. Of course they are worth reading, and it is time well wasted.

Lewis is not overrated, people are simply not interesting enough these days to be sufficiently interested. To borrow from Chesterton, there’s no lack of wonder, only a lack of wonderers.

You will neglect Lewis to your own intellectual and imaginative impoverishment. ....

Men of the North

When surprised me with news that much of my ancestry was Scottish (not Welsh, as we had thought), English, Swedish, and Dane, my interest increased in how that combination occurred. Today Micah Mattix quotes from a review by Tom Shippey, medievalist and Tolkien scholar, of several books about the Normans. Shippey:
The Viking Age​ is generally agreed to have ended, as far as England was concerned, on 25 September 1066, when Harald Harðráði, or ‘Hardline Harald’, was killed and his army all but annihilated at Stamford Bridge. This put an end to the steady progress of the Vikings from raiders to settlers to would-be conquerors: an attempted invasion by King Sweyn of Denmark three years later was abortive, and though Norwegians continued for many years to control the Scottish islands in the far North, their effect on the British mainland was negligible.

But if you take a more romantic view, the First Viking Age was succeeded within three weeks by the start of a Second Age, with the victory of William of Normandy at Hastings. By 1100, Norman princes ruled not only England and most of Wales, with much of Scotland and Ireland soon to follow, but also Apulia and Calabria in southern Italy, and Sicily. They had started the process of picking off parts of the Byzantine Empire, and a Norman prince was ruler of Antioch in the Levant. They were to play a significant part in the reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Muslims, and had ambitions even in North Africa. Who were the Normans, after all, but the men of the North, descended from pagan pirates? ....
Micah Mattix, Prufrock, March 15, 2023.

Monday, March 13, 2023

"The eternal desire to lose oneself in a chorus of hallelujahs"

About Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song:
.... “Hallelujah” may have the 12/8 timing and major chords that work so well for gospel music and wedding processionals, but it’s ultimately a story of fear and failure: “I did my best, it wasn't much.” Cohen dedicated it to “the broken.”

Sunday Times critic Bryan Appleyard observed that among all the verses available to cover artists, “Only two possibilities predominated: either this was a wistful, ultimately feel good song or it was an icy, bitter commentary on human relations.” The first, crowd-pleasing possibility only lasted one-and-a-half stanzas, but it’s amplified by the eternal desire to lose oneself in a chorus of hallelujahs. The rest of the lyrics attest to the author’s inability to live in a state of grace.

This is unfortunate. Audiences long for a serious, modern poem about the Creator blessing human desire. .... (more)
Among the many, many covers, I picked this one:

Katya Sedgwick, "Cohen’s Hallelujah," First Things, March 13, 2023.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Free exercise

Ever since the 17th century members of my denomination have had to navigate issues engaged by this upcoming US Supreme Court case:
Should American employees be forced to choose between making a living and freely exercising their religious beliefs? That is the question the Supreme Court is considering in Groff v. DeJoy.

On Tuesday, a diverse group submitted amicus briefs urging the court to answer that question with a resounding “no.” More than 30 briefs were filed on behalf of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Sikhs, Zionists, religious liberty and employment law scholars, medical professionals, nonprofit organizations, states, and members of Congress, among others.

Groff involves United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier Gerald Groff, a Christian, who holds uncontested sincere religious beliefs about resting, worshiping, and not working on his Sunday Sabbath. After he joined USPS in 2012, USPS contracted with Amazon in 2013 to provide mail deliveries on Sundays. Initially, USPS accommodated Groff’s Sunday Sabbath observance but later required him to work Sundays.

In accordance with his religious beliefs, Groff refused to work when he was scheduled on his Sunday Sabbath, resulting in progressive disciplinary actions by USPS. Realizing his termination was imminent, Groff resigned in 2019, leading to this religious discrimination lawsuit.

This case places the future of workplace religious accommodation rights in the hands of the Supreme Court. .... (more)
Rachel N. Morrison, "No One Should Be Forced To Choose Between His Faith And His Paycheck," The Federalist, March 6, 2023.

Keepers of the Flame

Alan Jacobs today, having read reviews of a friend's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
...[I]t’s clear that there is a strong network of Bonhoeffer scholars, centered in Germany but not confined there, for whom Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge is the one authoritative Keeper of the Bonhoeffer Flame, whose judgments must be acknowledged correct and thus made the grounding of all future scholarship on Bonhoeffer. Marsh knew and greatly admires Bethge but does not take quite that view. (How American of him!) And even mild dissent from the Authorized View – Strange Glory is certainly no “revisionist” biography of Bonhoeffer, though it has many new insights – must be policed by...the protectors of turf. Thus: turf protection as brand management; and book reviews as an instrument of brand management.

All this interests me because precisely the same kind of behavior can be seen in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship. Here Walter Hooper plays the role that Bethge plays for Bonhoeffer: the officially designated custodian of the Cult. The majority of Lewis scholars, I think, see themselves as continuing and extending the work of Hooper, and are typically not happy with work that dissents from Hooper’s understanding of Lewis. (Everyone who reads deeply in Lewis is indebted to Hooper for his energetic editorial labors, but his interpretations of Lewis are another matter.) Thus A.N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis – which is to some degree a revisionist one – was generally excoriated by the Lewisites, though it is in fact a mixed bag, deeply insightful in some ways and grossly mistaken in others. My own biography of Lewis has been largely ignored by the disciples of Hooper, I think because I am neither fish nor fowl: by no means a revisionist or skeptic, but also not following in Hooper’s interpretative footsteps. I am outside the Cult, but the way in which I am outside the Cult is not legible to them.

The interesting question for me is this: Is there a specific kind of thinker who generates a cult, a cult that then creates and manages a brand? There are certainly thinkers who intend to build a cult around themselves – Ayn Rand comes first to mind – but that’s not something that Bonhoeffer or Lewis would ever have done. Yet readers’ devotion to them is so intense that cults happen, as it were. ....
Alan Jacobs, "of bad book reviewers and writerly cults," The Homebound Symphony, March 10, 2023.

Monday, March 6, 2023


I just ordered a Blu-ray if one of my favorite modern noirs: Twilight (no vampires). The lead actors were Newman, Sarandon, Hackman, and Garner. The supporting cast was just as impressive: Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, Liev Schreiber, John Spencer, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, and M. Emmet Walsh. From CrimeReads on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film's release:
“You any tougher than you look?”
“Hell yes! At least, I used to be.”
“I used to be. We all used to be.”
Harry Ross (Paul Newman) was, as he describes it, a cop for twenty years, a PI for five, and then a drunk. When an errand to retrieve the wayward daughter of film stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon) goes awry due to Harry’s inattention and subsequent injury, the Ameses allow him to recuperate in an apartment above the garage in their Art Deco mansion. Two years later, Harry remains, having settled into a cushioned role as a handyman and sort of kept friend to Jack. His mutual attraction with Catherine adds a pinch of spice to bland days of playing gin and fixing appliances.

Jack asks Harry to deliver a package—contents unspecified, reasons eluded. “It’s not blackmail,” Jack claims, so we and Harry know immediately that it must be. Harry allows himself to be persuaded. ....

Bookend scenes are at the actual Hollywood Station of the LAPD, with real cops as extras and movie posters on the walls. The seedy houses and apartments of LA’s further reaches have authentic grunge. A 1920s manse built for Delores Del Rio by husband Cedric Gibbons (designer of the Oscar statue) becomes the luxe abode of Catherine and Jack. Raymond Hope [Garner] lives in a small Modernist marvel hovering on stilts above the smog, a house designed by John Lautner in 1948. And one of the many unfinished projects of Lautner’s mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, stands in for the remote ranch home of the Ameses. ....

The primary characters are in the waning days of careers, of lives, and of long-held secrets. Each is acutely aware that darkness is fast approaching. Jack is battling cancer for the second time. Catherine is younger and healthier than the two men in her life, but women in Hollywood are held to a different standard of success. Just maintaining the status quo requires desperate measures. And Harry knows he’s lost a step in an unmerciful profession. He should take his own advice and get out while he can. .... (more)
Glen Erik Hamilton, "Paul Newman’s Reflection on Noir: The 25th Anniversary of Twilight," CrimeReads, March 6, 2023.

Sunday, March 5, 2023


Richard Brookhiser, on the passing of friends:
When someone you have known for decades dies, so does that part of your own life. Gone are the occasions that only you two remembered, the punch lines that no one else now understands. ....

The fragility of friendship, like its value, is a product of adulthood. When we are kids our friends are who we know — the cohort of pint-sized neighbors and schoolmates. Looking back, you realize you did not even like some of them, but there they were, for dodgeball and duck duck goose, kids’ birthday parties and mandatory classroom exchanges of valentines. Everyone had to get one. I remember kid-size cards and/or chewable colored hearts imprinted with tiny messages. What do kids exchange now? DMs?

With age comes individuality and choice. ....

...[F]riendships can fade before friends do. Then the death of the friend annihilates even the fantasy that things might revert at last. It also highlights the wasted years that might not have gone to waste, if only.... Did we judge too quickly, not go the extra mile? Or were we wise because the person we had once picked and who picked us no longer existed, and the extra miles would have been endless? ....
Richard Brookhiser, "On Difficult Goodbyes," National Review, March 2, 2023.

Saturday, March 4, 2023


No one wants to suffer. Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me...." Suffering has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time and reducing it has almost always been a goal.  Katherine Boyle argues that "the war on pain has not only robbed us of resilience. It has sold us a mirage that is making us miserable."
.... It is not a coincidence that the modern campaign to eradicate suffering commenced just as religiosity in general and Christianity in particular began to decline at a rapid pace in America. There is no religion that doesn’t embrace suffering as integral to its teaching. Christianity deified it, with adherents wearing a symbol of torture as a symbol of their belief. Buddhism declares suffering its First Noble Truth. Stoicism acknowledges suffering while rejecting its dominance, and modern philosophers such as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”

Many of these ancient beliefs are being replaced with piecemeal spirituality, or what Ross Douthat recently described as “magical thinking,” which is not inclined to acknowledge the need for suffering as a redemptive or meaningful part of life.

The real question, then, is why our attempt to eradicate suffering isn’t working. Most of our modern culture wars are waged in the name of harm reduction, safetyism, and relief from the mildest form of suffering—once referred to as adversity. With so much focus on comfort and safety, why aren’t we . . . happier? ....

We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?
Katherine Boyle, "Get Serious: About Suffering," The Free Press, March 4, 2023.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Moving from "‘come and see’ to ‘go and be.’"

I've always been a bit suspicious of my own emotional reactions. I have cried at movies, for instance, and readily concede that I can be emotionally manipulated (and enjoy it, just as I can wallow in self-pity). I appreciated the cautions here:
.... Perhaps like some Asbury students, my most devoted spiritual years were during college. After an initial period of awakening, I spent years seeking to recreate, replicate and sustain an emotional intensity that I associated with pleasing God. ....

I have no criticism for earnestly sought after experiences of God, which I’m sure characterizes much of the Asbury revival. I do, however, think it is a mistake to make euphoric or ecstatic religious experience the goal or chief pursuit of one’s faith journey. ....

I grew up in a church where every Sunday we gathered in a large auditorium. I was surrounded by hundreds of people. The drums and electric guitar were loud, the lyrics were hypnotic, the chord structures were simple and appealed to my emotions. I’d close my eyes, bow my head, raise my hands, and sway with the music. Everyone else did the same.

It is hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it what these church services are like. It’s beyond a mood-altering state. It is, at times, an emotional nirvana. ....

It created emotions of love for God and for others. But it didn’t build habits of behavior that helped me sustain a life of service and usefulness, or to grow in my faith and apply it to the challenges in the world outside church. I thought that was the point of the Christian faith: to love God and others, and to be salt and light in the world.

In addition, there is a tendency in some strands of evangelicalism to believe that if you’re not having regular emotionally intense experiences then you’re far from God. Maybe God is unhappy with you. This is what I think is harmful. ....

.... Riling up people’s emotions or preying on the natural human desire for ecstasy is unethical, not to mention un-Christian.

However, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to know when our emotions and desires are being preyed on. It is our responsibility to develop the habits and reflexes of self-control, moderation, and sober-mindedness. ....

The road less traveled is the one that diverts from spectacle and toward faithful work. Or as poet Dan Wilt put it as the Asbury services wrapped up: “Now we move from ‘come and see’ to ‘go and be.’”
Jon Ward, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," The Dispatch, March 1, 2023.


When making classics appropriate for modern readers:
Sensitivity readers have been busy lately, first rewriting the works of Roald Dahl, and then trimming Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, ostensibly making them less offensive to modern readers. So what will they edit next – and how might they bring it into line with modern mores?
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
A honey-loving bear goes on a macrobiotic diet, and his best friend Eeyore is prescribed anti-depressants. Christopher Robin receives anti-psychotic medication to alleviate the delusion that animals are talking to him. ....

Dracula by Bram Stoker
A vampire learns to seek consent from beautiful women and people without wombs who identify as women before sucking their blood, and agrees to stop at any point that they change their minds about being blood donors. ....

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island form a commune and survive by engaging in a Marxist dialectic. They decry adults as bourgeois imperialists, and a pig-hunting expedition ends with them all deciding to become vegans. ....

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Three children are rescued by child protective services and learn not to talk to strangers hiding in the back of closets.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Authorities shut down a school where pupils routinely risk their lives playing Quidditch and die in dangerous competitions, experimenting in the dark arts, or attacked by Death Eaters, killing curses and werewolves. The building is found to lack permits for moving staircases and its ubiquitous use of candlelight is branded a fire hazard. ....

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
A sexually ambiguous Mole, Rat and Badger persuade wealthy Mr Toad to share his fortune and turn Toad Hall into a shelter for underprivileged weasels. Mr Toad reveals that he identifies as a Frog, legally alters his species, and changes his pronouns to they/them.
Peter Sheridan, "After Dahl: what the sensitivity readers did next," The Spectator, March 1, 2023.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023


My introduction to Timothy Keller was through his very good apologetic, The Reason for God (2008). Since then I've read many things by and about him, including the remarkable ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. This review of a new book about Keller summarizes his theological development. A small excerpt from that review:
.... Like many people raised in the 1950s, Keller grew up going to church – mostly in a mainline Lutheran denomination, but with occasional Catholic and Wesleyan influences as well.

By his own account, his knowledge of the “gospel,” as he later came to understand the term, was nearly nonexistent. If he had been asked at the time what it meant to be a Christian, he might have said “be a good person.”

When he was in middle school, one evangelically minded Lutheran minister introduced him to the Lutheran distinction between law and grace, a revelation that Keller found eye-opening and that he thinks could have led him to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

But the next year, a liberal Lutheran pastor presented a completely different form of Christianity – one that had almost nothing to do with individual salvation and everything to do with social justice. Following Jesus, he said, meant enlisting in the civil rights movement – and nothing to do with trusting in an atoning sacrifice to appease a wrathful God.

“It was almost like being instructed in two different religions,” Keller later recalled. “In the first year, we stood before a holy, just God whose wrath could only be turned aside at great effort and cost. In the second year, we heard of a spirit of love in the universe, who mainly required that we work for human rights and the liberation of the oppressed. The main question I wanted to ask our instructors was, ‘Which one of you is lying?’” ....

Then he discovered an Intervarsity Christian fellowship that led him to the writings of C.S. Lewis and a better understanding of the gospel than he had ever received. For a few months, he wrestled with the ideas that he was learning, but then surrendered his life to the Lord.

His friends noticed an immediate change. “He was a heck of a lot kinder, and you could reach him emotionally,” one of his friends later recalled. “All of a sudden he was present. He was there.” .... (much more)
Daniel K. Williams, "A Review of Collin Hansen’s Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Zondervan, 2023)," Anxious Bench, Feb. 28, 2023.

Monday, February 27, 2023

"Cultural" Christianity

Kevin Williamson, who writes primarily at The Dispatch, is always worth my time (and perhaps yours, subscribe here). Williamson today:
.... People who take an instrumental and political view of Christianity, however well-meaning...sometimes argue that only “Judeo-Christian religion”...provides a possible basis for a sound moral life, including the moral basis of national political life. This is, of course, what T.S. Eliot called the “dangerous inversion,” i.e., the argument that we should accept the supernatural claims of Christianity because they are useful for fortifying a moral sensibility when we should, instead, derive our moral sensibility from the truth of Christianity, if we believe it to be true, or from something else that we believe to be true rather than merely convenient. In a sense, the non-believer who sympathizes with Christianity is more of an enemy than is the frank atheist who hates Christianity—because the “cultural Christian” trivializes Christianity. The cultural Christian believes that Christianity is false and that this does not matter, while an evangelical atheist such as the late Christopher Hitchens believes that Christianity is false and that this does matter—that it matters a great deal. In that much, I am with Hitchens: Better to have a cruel and unforgiving society founded on the truth than to practice kindness based on a lie. ....

For all the talk (often fatuous) of Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” it was His supernatural claims, not His moral advice, that was distinctive: He was not crucified for saying that we should love one another, or for pointing out that the man with lust in his heart is an adulterer in spirit if not in fact, or for saying that we should forgive one another as we hope to be forgiven, or for any of that—He was crucified for claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah of prophecy. These are religious rather than moral claims.

Of course, the religious claims of Christianity must necessarily transform its moral sensibility. And thank God it does—there is almost nothing in this world as insipid as Christian solicitousness divorced from the brutal facts of Christianity itself. ....

As Elijah did not quite put it: If the Lord is God, then follow Him, but if Baal or Ron DeSantis or good public order is what you really care about, then you know what to do. In any case, you should stop fooling yourself—you aren’t fooling anybody else. But if you are an atheist who is pro-life, who prefers a traditional model of marriage and family life, who believes that Western civilization is superior to its competitors, that hedonic consumerism is not the highest good, etc., then you might ask yourself why you believe these things and upon what basis your beliefs stand. Maybe it is because you grew up in a (still barely) Christian civilization, or in something that was one until very recently, and you think that what this has produced is good—which only leads you back to the first question. If your answer is “culture”—culture only, and not one step farther—then you’re looking at turtles all the way down.
Kevin D. Williamson, "Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’?," The Dispatch, Feb. 27, 2023.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Physical possession

I own so many books, DVDs, and CDs—now also available streaming or in my Kindle library—that I have wondered how many I should keep. Commenting on the question because of the Dahl controversy:
...[T]he London Times is reporting that “owners” of electronic versions of the “offending” Dahl books are having their versions retrospectively altered. This is all too credible, I fear, and a reminder that in our current era it’s a good idea to own physical CDs, DVDs, and books that might be...vulnerable. Book burnings, at least, have to be carried out in public, and we are not (the odd incident apart) there yet.
Andrew Stuttaford, "Puffin’s (Largely) Cosmetic ‘Concession’ on Roald Dahl," National Review, Feb. 26, 2023.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Angry pacifism

I loved this, perhaps because it combines a lesson from history, political cartoons, and C.S. Lewis, but also because I like the historical analogy:
On September 9, 1944, mere days after the liberation of Paris by Allied forces in World War II, one of the most revered English minds of the 20th century penned a warning that looked beyond the immediate conflict toward the unthinkable—a third world war. C.S. Lewis was concerned about a lingering public attitude of apathy that threatened to leave Great Britain ill-prepared for her own defense in the years to come, just as a similar climate had sapped its strength in the age of appeasement in the 1930s.
“We know from the experience of the last twenty years that a terrified and angry pacifism is one of the roads that lead to war. I am pointing out that hatred of those to whom war gives power over us is one of the roads to terrified and angry pacifism. … A nation convulsed with Blimpophobia will refuse to take necessary precautions and will therefore encourage her enemies to attack her.”
What did Lewis mean by Blimpophobia? It’s an allusion to a popular British political cartoon of that era....

Colonel Blimp was the creation of Sir David Low, considered one of the most influential political cartoonists of the 20th century. The colonel sported a walrus mustache, a stately paunch, and carried an air of the old British aristocracy. Blimp invariably found himself pontificating on world events while wrapped in a towel, red faced, and enjoying a good sauna or Turkish bath. He came to represent the confused, contradictory, but no less confident attitude of British officials in the 1930s: He was befuddled but well-meaning, and he consistently made bold but incoherent statements on domestic and foreign affairs. ....

Low habitually used Colonel Blimp to lampoon Britain’s confused, contradictory, and accommodating treatment of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and other rising threats in Europe and Asia:
“If the Abyssinians don’t stop defending themselves, Mussolini will take it as an act of war … ”

“There’s only one way to stop these bullying aggressors—find out what they want us to do and then do it … ”

“Hitler only needs arms so that he can declare peace on the rest of the world.” ....
Lewis recognized that a reflexive opposition to an engaged foreign policy, rising out of a distaste for those in charge, was setting the stage for disaster. Prior to his fame as an author, theologian, and thinker, Lewis was a distinguished veteran of World War I and a keen observer of his country’s mood during the interwar period. He had seen the results of the “angry pacifism”—it had “led to Munich, and via Munich to Dunkirk.” In other words, frustrations aimed at the past had caused Britain to suffer near destruction in the present. As the war in Ukraine hits the one year mark, our nation must ask itself whether it will be led in the 21st century by a terrified and angry pacifism, buttressed by a confused and contradictory foreign policy, or whether it will stand up against stupidity in its many iterations and manifestations. People are dying. It is not the time to listen to our home-grown Colonel Blimps when they stand in solidarity with dictators who demand capitulation and call it peace. (more, but likely requiring a subscription)
C.S. Lewis's essay “Blimpophobia” appeared originally on September 9, 1944 in Time and Tide. It has been reprinted in Present Concerns.

Jacob Becker, "The Dangers of an ‘Angry Pacifism’," The Dispatch, Feb. 23, 2023.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

"The general bank and capital of nations, and of ages"

When I used this quotation from Burke in a class I had to explain that "prejudice" as used here needed to be understood as traditional wisdom rather than in the purely negative sense the word has acquired. From Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature. (my emphases)

Monday, February 20, 2023

Loving your neighbor

From Andrew Walker:
Few biblical phrases are as ubiquitous or have greater cultural standing than the biblical teaching to “love your neighbor” (see e.g., Matt. 19:19; 22:39). For the non-Christian, it may be the only moral truism he or she could identify as stemming from a cultural heritage informed by the Bible. No one to my awareness expresses disagreement with the principle. ....

What loving one’s neighbor foregrounds is the most basic principle necessary to sustain life in society: A reciprocal assurance that decency and kindness will be faithfully returned if given. Indeed, that America, along with so many other countries, has enjoyed this kind of civil arrangement and civic compact reflects the abundance of God’s common grace in our fallen world. This grace, perceived through general revelation, is multiplied when the light of the gospel shines into the world. Yet, even where such light is fading, there is a moral trust inhering within the imago Dei that undergirds the principle to love one’s neighbor. ....

Love is biblical insofar as love is biblically ordered to what God defines as good. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean being nice and accommodating to whatever your neighbor believes is in their best interest. Loving one’s neighbor, in other words, is not an invitation to moral relativism. ....

...[W]e are to genuinely seek after the fulfillment of our neighbor’s good, which has both positive and negative dimensions. As a positive reality, I should treat my neighbor with the dignity and respect befitting their existence. As a negative reality, I should work to restrain—by either my own agency or the political agency of the community—privations from raining down on my neighbor. I should neither personally hinder their good nor seek after policies that will result in their privation. ....

In common vernacular, the love of neighbor takes defaced expression when secondary goods such as human emotion are elevated as ultimate goods. Thus, when our neighbor insists that affirmation of one’s desires or emotional states is what constitutes his good, we must dissent. “Live your truth” and “You do you” are taken as moral entailments from secularized accounts of loving one’s neighbor. “If you affirm me, I’ll affirm you” or “If you do not object to my preference, I won’t object to your preference” is at irreconcilable odds with a biblical vision for the love of neighbor. We do not love our neighbor by omitting the truth to them. Furthering someone’s delusion or debauchery under a false account of loving them is actually to hate them. .... (more)
Andrew T. Walker, "The Moral Meaning of Loving One’s Neighbor," Christ Over All, Feb. 2023.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

"There's a voice I can hear"

Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered
Oh, when will I know
There's a way, there's a road
That will lead me home
After wind, after rain
When the dark is done
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day
Through the air there's a calling
From far away
There's a voice I can hear
That will lead me home
Rise up, follow me
Come away, is the call
With the love in your heart
As the only song
There is no such beauty
As where you belong
Rise up, follow me
I will lead you home

Cheer up and live in the sunshine

Just came across this performance of a bluegrass standard I like a lot not least because of its message:

Friday, February 17, 2023

Abide with me

Patrick Kurp today:
.... The worthy dead are to be remembered. I take that to mean the personal dead – family, friends – and those we know only second-hand, perhaps through books or history. Memory grants a post-mortem immortality. Only when the last to remember the dead person is gone is he truly dead. Memory reanimates. The Jewish practice of observing the Yahrtzeit only makes sense. Forgetting kills. Every March 28 I remember my maternal grandmother, the kindest of my relatives, who died in 1972 at age eighty-four and whom I never saw angry. While she was alive I would never have thought to tell her that. .... In his Rambler essay published on February 17, 1751, Dr. Johnson writes:
[F]ew can review the time past without heaviness of heart. He remembers many calamities incurred by folly, many opportunities lost by negligence. The shades of the dead rise up before him; and he laments the companions of his youth, the partners of his amusements, the assistants of his labours, whom the hand of death has snatched away.”
The hymn “Abide with Me” was written by the Scottish Anglican cleric Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). It’s a prayer imploring God to stay with the speaker throughout life and in death, and was written by Lyte as he was dying from tuberculosis. ....

Patrick Kurp, "The Shades of the Dead Rise Up," Anecdotal Evidence, Feb. 17, 2023.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

I might be an extremist

Douglas Murray has been reading the report of Britain's "Research Information and Communications Unit" (RICU), part of a governmental organization called Prevent. What is to be prevented is extremism.
...I read on and saw that these same taxpayer-funded fools provide lists of other books shared by people who have sympathies with the ‘far-right and Brexit’. Key signs that people have fallen into this abyss include watching the Kenneth Clark TV series Civilisation, The Thick of It and Great British Railway Journeys. I need to stress again that I am not making this up. This has all been done on your dime and mine in order to stop ‘extremism’ in these islands.

There is also a reading list of historical texts which produce red flags to RICU. These include Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, as well as works by Thomas Carlyle and Adam Smith. Elsewhere RICU warns that radicalisation could occur from books by authors including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Conrad. I kid you not, though it seems that all satire is dead, but the list of suspect books also includes 1984 by George Orwell.
Douglas Murray, "Can you really be radicalised by Great British Railway Journeys?," The Spectator, Feb. 18, 2023.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

A fool's hope

I thought Alan Jacobs' discussion of Denethor’s suicide in The Lord of the Rings interesting and found his conclusions agreeable. Toward the end he writes about the Christian conviction "not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail," but in our time?
For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. ....

Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier:
“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.”
That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.

It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil [emphasis added]. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.” (more)
Alan Jacobs, "self-sacrifice and despair," The Homebound Symphony, Feb. 15, 2023.

Intelligent but irrational

From "Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things":
The prevailing view is that people adopt false beliefs because they’re too stupid or ignorant to grasp the truth. This may be true in some cases, but just as often the opposite is true: many delusions prey not on dim minds but on bright ones. And this has serious implications for education, society, and you personally. ....

What these studies show is that greater bias is found within intelligent people of all belief systems, left or right, Christian or atheist, and since these biases can’t all be correct, they’re clearly not a product of greater understanding. So what is it about intelligent people that makes them particularly prone to bias? ....

...[W]hile unintelligent people are more easily misled by other people, intelligent people are more easily misled by themselves. They’re better at convincing themselves of things they want to believe rather than things that are actually true. This is why intelligent people tend to have stronger ideological biases; being better at reasoning makes them better at rationalizing. ....

Research suggests that teaching people about misinformation often just causes them to dismiss facts they don’t like as misinformation, while teaching them logic often results in them applying that logic selectively to justify whatever they want to believe.

Such outcomes make sense; if knowledge and reasoning are the tools by which intelligent people fool themselves, then giving them more knowledge and reasoning only makes them better at fooling themselves. ....

If you define your self-worth by your ability to reason—if you cling to the identity of a master-debater—then admitting to being wrong will hurt you, and you’ll do all you can to avoid it, which will stop you learning. So instead of defining yourself by your ability to reason, define yourself by your willingness to learn. Then admitting you’re wrong, instead of feeling like an attack, will become an opportunity for growth.

Anyone who’s sure they’re humble is probably not....

Humility and curiosity, then, are what we most need to find truth. By seeking one we also seek the other: being curious makes us humble, because it shows us how little we know, and in turn, being humble makes us curious, because it helps us acknowledge that we need to learn more.

In the end, rationality is not about intelligence but about character. Without the right personal qualities, education and IQ won’t make you master of your biases, they’ll only make you a better servant of them. .... (more)
Gurwinder, "Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things," The Prism, Feb 13, 2023.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

New England neo-noir

Last night I watched Tom Selleck in one of his Jesse Stone films. He did nine as TV movies and I think they are his best work. They have been described as "neo-noir." I find them easily re-watchable. From an appreciation:
One of Tom Selleck's most acclaimed performances came from his starring role in the Jesse Stone TV movies.The character comes from a series of detective novels by late author Robert B. Parker, with Stone being a former LAPD detective fired for a drinking problem following a painful divorce. The first Jesse Stone TV movie was Stone Cold, which aired in 2005, and found the character as the police chief of a New England town with a lot of secrets. The movie proved to be a ratings hit with CBS airing another seven movies between 2006 and 2012. ....
Even if you don’t pay attention to the credits to note that Selleck is a producer of the Stone adventures as well as an occasional co-writer of them, you instinctively know the actor is in full control. .... It’s not that Selleck needs to dominate the proceedings; it’s that we want him to — we revel in the idea that he’s offering himself up to us a middle-aged man who’s both tired but still sharp, weighed down with melancholy yet buoyant with hope that he can right a few wrongs before he has to hang up his baseball cap. ....

It’s clear that Selleck connects to this character on both an intellectual and gut level. He’s made Jesse more complex at every opportunity, even at the risk [of] alienating some viewers who might find the pace slow or the themes depressing. Me, I find the deliberate pacing a luxurious pleasure, a respite from the frantic cross-cutting and end-every-scene-with-a-climax style of network storytelling. ....
I've purchased most of them on Amazon Prime because I do like to re-watch them but, of course, many can also be streamed free or rented. If you do decide to watch them, watch them in order.

Monday, February 13, 2023

"The malady of self-delusion"

Via Steven Hayward from The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929):
It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

A sound and wise statesmanship which recognizes and attempts to abide by its limitations will undoubtedly find itself displaced by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little.
Steven Hayward, "Thought for the Day, from the Not Silent Cal," PowerLine, Feb 13, 2023.